In Hollywood, the holidays are reserved for mainstream blockbusters and last ditch-efforts at getting Oscar contenders in under the wire, and this year is no exception. The media blitz surrounding traditional studio fare, including the release of Marley & Me, makes it hard for a small film centered on the human-canine bond to be noticed. But those looking for a quieter, more reflective take on subject will find it in Wendy and Lucy, a new film by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous features include River of Grass and Old Joy. The story explores the marginalization of the American dream, and how easy it is for things to unravel when you’re already on the edge.
Starring Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There) as Wendy, and Reichardt’s own mixed-breed Lucy as, well, Lucy, this is a story of a young woman of extremely limited means driving to Alaska in the hope of finding a job in the canneries. Lucy, her dog, is her only company on this spare but hopeful odyssey. When Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, her well-laid plans begin to come apart. And when she’s caught shoplifting dog food and taken to jail, Lucy—tied up outside the grocery store—is left behind. Then she disappears, and Wendy must try to find her before she can get back on the road.
Both directed and co-written by Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy is a foray into serious indie territory in content, style and budget. With the exception of Williams and a couple of supporting parts, such as the mechanic (played by Will Patton), there are virtually no familiar faces to be seen, and the movie’s grainy, faded tones add to its indie atmosphere. Williams carries the entire burden of the story on her shoulders, and she’s equal to the task, convincingly portraying a protagonist who holds her head up as she tries to make a better life, even though she doesn’t have so much as a place to sleep for the night.
Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond make a deliberate choice not to tell us what has gone in Wendy’s life to get her to this point, but since she appears to be a loving and conscientious person, we can only assume that the situation she left behind was a difficult one. As a result, we ache for her all the more as she works to keep it together while her plans disintegrate.
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Wendy and Lucy is clearly aimed at the art-house crowd. Intensely personal and introspective, it is an example of what some have hailed as the “new American realism”—territory explored by Gus Van Sant, among others. In its subject matter and decidedly unsentimental approach, the movie calls to mind Vittoria De Sica’s Umberto D, the 1952 classic about an elderly pensioner who finds himself—as Roger Ebert so aptly described it—“falling from poverty into shame,” evicted and penniless, his dog his only companion.
As in Umberto D, there’s a quiet political undertow to Wendy and Lucy—the politics of poverty and lack of opportunity, touchingly conveyed in the few conversations that take place between Wendy and her one human ally, a store guard who first chases her out of a parking lot but then offers what help he can manage.
Wendy reserves most of her conversation for Lucy; when speaking to people, she is far more economical with her words. In a way, this trait reflects the character’s utter isolation; Lucy is her only comfort, her only true relationship. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Lucy goes missing.
Not surprisingly, Wendy and Lucy provoked some buzz on the film festival circuit, and Lucy took top-dog honors at Cannes, winning the unofficial Palm Dog award from a jury that included the likes of noted British film critics Derek Malcolm and Peter Bradshaw. Reichardt picked up Lucy’s prize, a diamante collar with “Palm Dog” stitched into it, but said she didn’t expect her thespian pooch to be wearing it too often around her Queens, N.Y., ’hood.
With this steam behind it, Wendy and Lucy makes its way into the crowded marketplace. If you’re looking for megaplex fare, a happy-go-lucky family film, then perhaps you’ll want to keep looking. But for alternative programming, Wendy and Lucy provides a fine, powerful and emotional experience.